Elections chief says lowering voting age to 16 is an idea 'worth considering'

Canada’s acting elections chief Stéphane Perrault says lowering the voting age to 16 could boost lifelong participation in the democratic process. Changing the legal age for casting a ballot is a “fundamental policy option” that only Parliament can make - but he thinks it’s one worth considering.

Stéphane Perrault says it's important to start teaching the habits of democracy early

Elections Canada is expanding the number of satellite polling stations on campuses across the country for the 2019 federal election in an effort to boost youth voter turnout. (Shutterstock / Rawpixel.com)

Canada's elections chief says Parliament could look at lowering the voting age to 16 to boost Canadians' lifelong participation in the democratic process.

Stéphane​ Perrault, acting chief electoral officer, told CBC News that changing the minimum legal age for casting a ballot is a "fundamental policy" change only Parliament can make — but he thinks it's "worth considering."

"Voting when you're 16 is voting at a time when most Canadians at that age are still in school, at a place that we can actually get to them and engage them," he said.

"We know that Canadians who vote early in their lifetime will continue to vote, and those who don't vote in the first few elections will tend not to vote later on. So there's a real benefit to making sure that Canadians vote early, and voting when you're 16, there's an opportunity to reach out to them."

Other countries, such as Scotland and Austria, have lowered their minimum voting age to 16. British Columbia is now looking at the issue provincially, with a legislative move underway to allow younger voters.

Perrault said the issue has not been extensively debated in Parliament. While 18 is widely considered the "age of majority" in Canada, Canadians are granted other rights at age 16, such as the right to drive a vehicle.

Younger voters, lifetime voters

And since most 16-year-olds are still in high school, elections and voting could become part of their civic education. Voting is a "foreign" concept to them until they actually take part in it, Perrault said.

Coty Zachariah, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, called it a "great idea" and said informing and engaging people at an early age would help combat voter apathy.

"I think the younger we start exposing young people to what politics is and how to get involved, where to vote, what they need to vote and who they could be voting for, that would all be beneficial to the democratic process," he said.

Zachariah said a younger electorate could sway public policy on issues that are, while important, often overlooked by candidates courting an older demographic.

"Politicians would have to speak to issues that affect young people," he said.

NDP MP Don Davies said many 16-year-olds work and pay taxes, yet they have no say in how those tax dollars are spent. Lowering the voting age to 16 would give them a "tool" to take part in democracy and make change happen, he said.

"Young people today are more involved, engaged and plugged into what's happening in our country and there's no reason they shouldn't be allowed to vote," he said.

"People in a democracy have very different interests, values and vantage points. By not allowing these young people to vote, we're shutting out the democratic perspective of a segment of our population."

Treasury Board President Scott Brison said Monday said he would like to hear more on the issue during a study of measures to strengthen the elections process.

"We look forward to that debate and to hearing the views of Parliament," he said.

Scott Brison the acting Minister of Democratic Reform is asked about the voting age by the CBC`s Chris Rands 0:48

Youth voter turnout on the rise

In 2015, voter turnout among those aged 18 to 24 increased 18.3 points, to 57.1 per cent, up from 38.8 per cent in 2011.

But that was still lower than overall voter turnout, which was 68.3 per cent.

In an effort to further increase the youth vote, Elections Canada will be expanding a pilot project it launched in 2015 which set up satellite polling stations at 39 campuses across the country.

Stéphane Perrault is Canada's acting chief electoral officer. Elections Canada is stepping up efforts to increase the youth voter turnout. (Elections Canada)

There will be 110 satellite stations in place in 88 electoral districts for the 2019 election, along with additional staff. The offices — which provide voters with election information and allow them to register or vote — will be open for five days, up from four. Perrault called that a "significant expansion" that should draw in more youth voters.

Zachariah said if Parliament lowers the voting age, more such satellite stations could be set up at secondary schools.

Nicky Cayer, a spokeswoman for the Minister of Democratic Institutions, said the government is working to improve youth engagement across the country. She cited Bill C-33, which, if passed, would create a register of future electors allowing Canadians aged 14 to 17 to pre-register to vote.

"If Canadians can already be registered to vote when they turn 18 years old, it will remove the largest barrier to first-time voters and encourage meaningful civic engagement," she said in an email.

"We are always open to hearing from Canadians about ways to get more young people involved in politics and the democratic process."

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections. Follow her on Twitter @ottawareporter

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